Local clerks' excuses for not talking about election audits

December 20, 2015  -- Before I retired, I worked in quality assurance for a program that delivered health care in clients’ homes. It was a human-services government program, so the provider agencies never had more than a a shoestring budget. Rarely was there only one right way to do anything.

Whether because of or in spite of that, most managers were willing to think and talk about quality improvement.

But there were always a few mangers who reflexively insisted, "Everything is already as good as it can possibly be, and I don't need any new ideas." 

Now that I’m working in election integrity, I'm seeing a lot more of that second type of 'manager'.

Verifying computer output shouldn't be a novel idea. Wisconsin statutes require clerks to keep an ‘auditable’ paper record of every ballot, not a ‘decorative’ one, so we can safely infer that legislative intent had something to do with checking accuracy. No sensible person doubts the need to check accuracy, whether the output is our property tax bills or our election results. 

BreezeofChange.jpgResponsible election officials can converse about the practicalities: How many ballots do we have to examine before we can be confident we’ve identified the right winners? How can we do that in the time available? If I innovate, what opposition can I anticipate and who is willing to back me up?

Those managers' conversation focuses on reasonable problem-solving, not excuses for inaction.

But there are many election officials who, when they catch even a gentle breeze of change, batten down the hatches as if expecting a hurricane.

Late last month, I sent a for-your-information letter to each of the 61 municipal clerks in a county where we’re working on raising awareness of the need for verification and its practical solution.

Because many are sensitive to any hint of criticism, the letter made it clear that we were asking for change in only county procedures, not municipal ones. In describing what we would be asking of the county, I chose the most respectful, non-threatening, benign words possible without misleading them about the fact that we are asking for improvement.

The letter ended with an offer to visit the municipal clerk, at his or her convenience, to talk more about the issue.

Two weeks later, I found one response in my email inbox. After a few comments that revealed significant naiveté about the inherent limitations of the local clerks' IT security measures, the municipal clerk wrote:

I tire of these subtle (and sometimes blatant) indictments of a system where it is obvious that no one has taken the time to confer with the clerks first. Instead, they pattern advice on what is assumed to be true.  Also, I get the impression someone is prepared to sell us some proprietary software to “fix” a non-problem.

Well, at least he responded. That put him ahead of the other sixty municipal clerks.

The devil on my shoulder wanted to respond by calling the writer's bluff by pointing out that if he was genuinely willing to confer, he could have accepted my offer to meet rather than complain that we’d never met. 

But I shushed that suggestion. In my actual response, I explained some of the basics of prudent IT security as briefly as I could.

ConfidentHouse.jpgI did not bother to reiterate my offer to meet with him, and I don’t expect to hear back. When someone has boarded up all his mental doors and windows, my guess is that the best thing is to let him calm down in silence until he realizes there won’t be a hurricane.

The disheartening thing is that the people who are open to the breezes of change are not those who are in a position to implement improvements.

Voters and poll workers, to start with, are very interested when they learn that election results could be made safe from electronic miscounts. They know how much they have invested in elections, and how tragic it would be to lose it all to a computer glitch, when such a loss could easily be prevented.

State and national officials are interested, too. It's the national authorities' recommendations that we're trying to get local elections officials to heed.

Last July, when we gave a public demonstration of an efficient new verification method, attendance at the event included the director of the state Government Accountability Board and his chief elections manager; the director of the state League of Women Voters; and a nationally-renowned, federal-government-advising expert on election technology and computer-science professor from a neighboring state.

From within a 30-mile radius, we had also invited 3 county elections officials, 37 county board supervisors, and 61 municipal clerks. Not one of them showed up. Not one.

Among the I-have-a banana-in-my-ear responses I've received from local officials over the past few years:

  • Every professional version of “I’m planning on washing my hair that night.” If an election is coming up within two months, they are too busy preparing to talk. If an election is more than two months away, they will be willing to talk about election administration issues when they are more timely.  The City of Madison municipal clerk begged off attendance at one public meeting by saying she’d be too busy registering voters—at 8:00 PM. (She has a staff of seven.)
  • They’re just so busy with everything else all the time, they cannot even read the invitation. One county board supervisor told me not to expect a response from any other county board supervisor because “We get so many emails we don’t read them.”
  • It’s not my job: “You don’t need to talk to me because I’m (not on that committee; not in the majority; from a neighborhood too affected by Voter ID…).”
  • And, of course, silence.

This cannot go on forever. We will get their attention somehow. For all our sakes, I hope it's before the next serious electronic miscount gives us cause to shout “I told you so!”

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